Search form

Math! Math! Math!Middle-School Algebra: Ready or Not?

Does eighth-grade algebra breed math literacy or math phobia? The debate goes on.

"If necessity is the mother of invention
Then I'd like to kill the guy who invented this
The numbers come together in some kind of a third dimension
A regular algebraic bliss.

"Let's start with something simple, like one and one ain't three
And two plus two will never get you five.
There are fractions in my subtraction
and x don't equal y
But my homework is bound to multiply..."

From "Math Suks"
Jimmy Buffet and the Coral Reefers

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics has denounced the lyrics in Jimmy Buffet's song, Math Suks, but no one can deny that they reflect the feelings -- and the math performance -- of many of today's middle- and high-school students.

For years, U.S. educators have been debating the best ways of changing both the attitudes and the math achievement levels of those students. New math, old math, new-new math, basic math, back-to-basics math, reform math, and more have had their proponents and their detractors. However, the much-publicized results of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) made it clear that it's imperative to find a definitive answer soon if U.S. middle- and high school students are ever to achieve the levels of math proficiency demonstrated by their international peers.

On TIMSS, a math exam given to students in grades 4, 8, and 12 around the world, U.S. fourth graders scored above average when compared to fourth graders in other countries. U.S. eighth graders, however, scored below average. In fact, the United States was the only country in which students' scores went from above average to below average between the fourth and eighth grades -- and to near bottom by 12th grade. For many educators, politicians, and parents, TIMSS indicated a fundamental flaw in math education in the middle schools in this country.

Mathematics Equals Opportunity, a White Paper prepared for U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley following release of the TIMSS scores, states: "Recent findings from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study indicate that the mathematics curriculum from grades 5 through 8 may be a weak link in the U.S. educational system."

Edward A. Silver, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh and the author of Improving Mathematics in Middle School: Lessons from TIMSS and Related Research, states: "In general, the TIMSS results indicate a persuasive and intolerable mediocrity in mathematics teaching and learning in the middle grades and beyond....The results also suggest that the demands made by the U.S. school mathematics curriculum and our mathematics classroom instruction are not as challenging as in many other countries."

Furthermore, the implications of that lack of challenge are more far-reaching than indicated by the results of a single exam. According to the authors of Mathematics Equals Opportunity, studies have shown that

  • students who take rigorous math and science courses are more likely to go to college,
  • students from low-income backgrounds who take rigorous math and science courses are three times more likely to go to college than similar students who take less-demanding courses,
  • students who take more-demanding math courses show higher gains in mathematics achievement than students who take less-challenging courses, even when controlled for initial achievement,
  • workers who have a background of demanding math and science courses are more likely to be employed -- and earn more -- than students without such a background, even if they don't go to college.


Most educators agree that algebra is the key to a rigorous and demanding math program in middle school and beyond. University of Chicago math professor Zalman Usiskin calls algebra "the language of problem solving," and studies indicate that it's a language students must learn in order to go on to more demanding courses, such as geometry, calculus, physics, and chemistry. The question remains -- when should they begin to learn it?

Many educators, politicians, and parents believe that introducing algebraic concepts in elementary school and offering Algebra I in middle school will

  • allay the fear of algebra that often arises when algebra is first presented in high school,
  • allow students to move into more-demanding math and science courses as soon as they reach high school,
  • provide the time and background students need to take a greater variety of higher-level courses in high school.

Furthermore, algebra advocates say, students who do not learn the basics of algebra by middle school will be at a distinct disadvantage when pursuing future careers in science, engineering, and computer technology. They point out that many of the European and Asian students who scored better -- in some cases much better -- on TIMSS than U.S. students did take algebra and geometry courses in middle school. U.S. students, they say, must follow an equally rigorous program if they are to be competitive in an international forum.


Not everyone agrees, however. A number of math educators believe that if algebra is taught in middle school, many students

  • will miss instruction in other necessary math skills and concepts,
  • will not be developmentally ready for the abstract thinking required for algebra,
  • will be turned off both to algebra and to math in general.

In addition, some high-school math teachers express concern about the quality of algebra instruction when given by middle school teachers who may not have the background to teach it.


Despite the controversy, the trend toward teaching algebra in middle school is growing -- and gathering powerful support. Vice President Al Gore recently called on the nation's adults to commit to helping students master the fundamentals of algebra and geometry by the end of eighth grade. In a letter accompanying the Mathematics Equals Opportunity White Paper, U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said, "The key to understanding mathematics is taking algebra or courses covering algebraic concepts by the end of eighth grade. Achievement at that stage gives students an important advantage in taking rigorous high-school mathematics and science courses."


Article by Linda Starr
Education World®
Copyright © 2003 Education World


Originally published 06/21/1999
Links updated 04/18/2003